Sunday, August 9, 2009

So what might a cognitive lever look like?

What if we could lean on the operating strength of our brains just as the crowbar leans on the solid strength of the side of the box whose lid is being pried? Would it be possible to get that same kind of leverage, that multiplier effect, working mentally for us? (I already regret the use of the word mentally, but I'm struggling to come up with a better choice.) What might that mean, anyway?

With the physical crowbar, we can gain leverage by positioning the claws at just the right spot - a solid spot, where they will be able to push against a flat, strong surface area and support the force that will be exerted on the other end. If we can rely on the strength of that area to hold as we push, then the force we apply at the other end will be multiplied by a factor related to the length and strength of the crowbar (the lever). How do we find that same kind of leverage in our brains?

With the crowbar, the key was finding the right spot, the right position. I'm thinking that with the brain, the key is understanding the natural functions that the brain is optimally wired to handle, and taking advantage of the way they already work. In other words, leveraging existing functions. So what are the most powerful existing functions?

We didn't know much about brain functions 100 years ago, and precious little even into the mid-twentieth century. But the explosion of new medical technologies and research over the last 50 years has provided us with a wealth of insight into how the brain works. While few researchers in the field are likely to believe that we have brain functioning nailed (ouch - painful choice of metaphors), discoveries have increasingly led to a variety of applications, some commercialized, some not, and some perhaps commercialized prematurely.

Sticking with those "yet to be commercialized," I want to put in a plug for one of my favorite practitioners/researchers/authors (yes, he is all of those) - Elkhonon Goldberg. His first two books, The Executive Brain and The Wisdom Paradox are masterpieces of making complex research understandable to lay people (like me). There is plenty to mine in these books, plenty to apply, far too much to do justice to in a blog. So I'll just highlight one piece of his findings that has stuck with me and helped me understand why some good learning and thinking tools work - even how they work.

In the second book, The Wisdom Paradox, Goldberg explains a bit about the physiological differences found between the two hemispheres of the neo-cortex, and how these differences make it possible for us to recognize and remember patterns. (NO! Don't zone out - this is good stuff!!! I'm going to attempt to summarize, just so that you get the idea. But if you're interested, don't rely on my summary - check out his book. I may not have gotten it completely right.)

It seems that the right hemisphere is built mainly with neurons that are long and skinny - very long. The connections in the right hemisphere are often relatively "long distance" connections, enabling the neo-cortex to communicate with areas all over the brain very rapidly. His theory is that this structure enhances the ability of the cell groups in the right neo-cortex to quickly make "sense" of new sensory data.

The cells in the left neocortex, on the other hand, tend to be shorter, denser, more heavily "myellinated." Myellin is formed when the same cell pathways are activated over and over. The theory is that a pattern is getting strengthened when the myellin is forming.

So here's how it works: You see, hear, feel, etc. something new. The cells in the right hemisphere of your thinking brain (neo-cortex) pick up that sensory input and very rapidly send signals all over the brain, looking for the "meaning" of this new input. (I know - Dr. Goldberg might not like that word meaning.) Somewhere in the brain there is a match, or a fit, and a message goes back to the neo-cortex that this input has been recognized (re-cognized). It fits a pattern. This instance, if it is significant enough, may now get stored as another instance of that pattern - maybe another tiny, tiny spec of a sheet of myelin.

Too minutely mechanical for you? If that's the case, here's the point: I now have a pretty good idea of how pattern recognition might work in my brain. I understand that it's OK (maybe even preferred) for me to let my mind wander in multiple directions when I'm faced with some new stimulus - sensory or otherwise. I understand that my brain will automatically want to bring me candidates for matching patterns. Maybe most important, I understand that my job is to get clear on what the new stimulus really is, so that I give my brain the chance to identify the right candidates for a matching pattern.

Still too mechanical? OK, what do you imagine is going on in your mind when you look at the faces in a picture from your 25th, or 30th, or (gulp) 35th graduating class reunion? I think I'm experiencing a recognition power unleashed between my ears that makes a simple crowbar look like a Neanderthal's tool. Unless, of course, I don't recognize any faces....

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